EU reassurances on Theresa May's Brexit deal likely to be non-binding letter

Legal changes looking increasingly impossible to obtain

Jon Stone
Brussels
@joncstone
Monday 07 January 2019 16:18
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Theresa May is 'working to get further EU assurances'

Reassurances by the EU to help Theresa May get her Brexit deal through parliament could be limited to a non-binding exchange of letters, under plans being considered by the European Commission.

Such a limited move – which would not include any actual changes to the agreement – would be highly unlikely to convince Tory MPs to back the plan, which looks set to be rejected by a large margin when it comes before the Commons next week.

Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker are expected to speak on the phone this week to discuss the state of play, as the formal Commons debate kicks off ahead of the vote next week.

But the EU has once again ruled out even meeting with UK negotiators to discuss any actual changes to the agreement, with a spokesperson telling reporters in Brussels on Monday: “There won’t be any meeting as such, because negotiations have been completed.”

The spokesperson added that Brussels would “follow closely the ratification process in the UK”.

The Independent reported at the weekend that any further reassurances are not expected to go as far as the full legally binding commitment as demanded by Tory MPs.

Such a text with legal status would require yet another summit – which EU leaders are not prepared to hold after having already been dragged back to Brussels in November for an extra meeting.

Downing Street confirmed they were seeking written reassurances in the coming days but said that what form they might take was subject to discussion.

The Guardian reports that officials are considering an exchange of letters containing a written but non-binding pledge to try and secure a trade deal by 2021 – the end of the transition period.

This date is important because it would be the point the controversial “backstop” kicks in if no trade deal is negotiated by – under which Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be placed under different regulatory regimes.

Unionists are opposed to such a state of affairs because they see it as a breach of the UK’s sovereignty.

The content of the letter would be a political commitment and not legally enforceable – and is unlikely to be enough to assuage rebellious Tory MPs.

“They cannot expect a legal commitment to land complicated negotiations by December 2021,” one EU official told the newspaper.

“We do not want to make ourselves legally culpable for a situation that we can’t control.”

At the December meeting of the European Council in Brussels EU leaders already confirmed that it was the bloc’s “firm determination to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered”.

One official described any further letter as a “copy and pasting exercise” based on material that was already present – such as the withdrawal agreement and the statement issued in December.

A previous phone conversation between Mr Juncker and Ms May on Friday was described by a Commission spokesperson as “friendly”, though no details were provided about what was discussed.

“They spoke to each other, by telephone, it was a friendly conversation, they’ll be talking again this week. There is no negotiation because everything on the table has been established as approved, achieved. The priority now is to await events, monitor what is happening, the ratification procedure on the UK side,” the spokesperson said

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